My spouse Andrea and I returned from our annual winter vacation on the ocean in northwestern Puerto Rico in late February. We’d rented an oceanside home situated on a high cliff with a magnificent 180-degree view of the tropical Atlantic. At that elevation we were frequently at sight level with high-flying hawks, falcons, osprey, frigate birds, and pelicans. We kept binoculars handy to better track these flight-loving raptors. Burgeoning birders that we were, we’d brought our much-used guidebook, Birds of Puerto Rico, studying up on the habits and nesting preferences of each species that we identified.
Soon after returning to our home in Maryland, we started noticing a preponderance of turkey vultures around our suburban home in the early evening hours. We regarded this phenomenon with curiosity and interest. It seemed to be an extension of our two-week encounter with the sea raptors of Puerto Rico. The early March weather felt colder and harsher after our stay in the tropics, so our only venture outdoors on many days was our evening walk.
One evening we noticed that a number of the vultures were resting among the high branches of our backyard loblolly pine grove. The grove is on the northwest corner of our 1/2-acre property and consists of about a dozen tall, mature pines, planted fairly close together such that their upper branches intertwine. We noticed a few pair of vultures occupying adjacent higher branches. My only thought was, “Well, that explains what we’ve been seeing each evening!”
We’d been home for two weeks at that point and most of my interest and attention were still turned to indoor pursuits. However, I began noticing large white splatterings of bird poop on our driveway, increasing in volume and frequency as the weeks went on. I went out a couple of times with a hard-wired brush, hot water and strong detergent to clean the driveway. That experience tied me to those vultures in a different way. I began thinking of them as pests, even though my ecological mindset kept reminding me of the essential role that vultures play in our suburban environment. In addition, I’d always marveled at the site of vultures soaring in the late afternoon sky, riding thermals for the sheer joy of it. My sweat lodge teacher used to call them “peace eagles” and that’s how I tried to think of them.
Whenever Andrea and I talked about the vultures, we ended up agreeing that we had little choice but to “wait and see”. But then one evening I was standing in our backyard as the “kettle” of vultures (about 12 of them) began descending on our property. For the first time, I felt pangs of fear in my gut as I took in the size and purposefulness of these large flying creatures. They flew down in what appeared to be an orderly way, following a lead “scouting party” of three larger birds. The sight of their 3-4 feet wingspans circling our home rattled me. I experienced them as invading hordes, guests who had overstayed their welcome.
My feelings of being invaded stayed with me for a number of ensuing days. I felt hemmed in, trapped in my own home, unable to imagine a way out. I went outside one morning to another massive effluent of vulture poop, not only on the driveway now, but also on the back patio and the entire area below the pines. A strong odor emanated from that area — that of an extremely acrid urine.
That morning I rallied myself to get more information about what was happening. I sought out the “vultures” entry in Wikipedia and spent some hours learning about their nature and habits. I was particularly taken with the description of a vulture’s digestive system, which secretes corrosive acids capable of digesting the carrion that was the species’ primary diet. But nowhere in the long discussion of vulture biology did I see any mention of issues like mine.
I next googled “vultures in the suburbs” and before long, came upon an excellent story in an old Audubon Society magazine. The story detailed an event in Leesburg, VA in which over a hundred vultures had established their roosting place. The residents became perturbed and called their local officials. Eventually, city officials agreed to contract with a special unit in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help remove the vultures. The crew came in with air-horns, fireworks and effigies of dead vultures that they hung from the trees. The vultures took flight but later returned and the whole process was repeated. Finally, they left for good.
That process seemed a little extreme to me. After all, we had a much smaller number of birds. After more searching on the Web, I found the phone number for a Wildlife Information Hotline provided by our state’s Department of Natural Resources. I called and was transferred to another line. That line had a recorded message which was actually quite informative about vultures. After carefully listening to it a couple of times, I left my number to have an agent call me.
At that point, my resolve was set. One thing I learned online was that vultures liked to roost in tall pine trees, and that they would lay their eggs there in springtime. Once the eggs were laid, the parents would warm them for up to 60 days before the little ones broke through and eventually fledged. It felt important to act before any eggs were laid.
That afternoon I went down to our basement to retrieve two large hoop drums that we had used in our many years attending sweat lodges. As the sun dropped in the west, I took the drums onto our back patio, close to the pine grove. I knew that the vultures would be returning soon, but now I was ready for them. As the first three “scout” vultures descended, I commenced playing one of the hoop drums as loudly as I could with a strong, steady beat. They soon veered off from the pines but made a large circle and returned. I continued drumming strongly but this time the lead vultures landed anyway. Even as I continued to drum, the rest of the kettle soon arrived and began settling in the pines. I persisted and began hooting and hollering as well. I took the second, larger, louder “buffalo drum” and began striking it strongly. Within a minute, one of the vultures flew away, and the rest followed in quick succession. I continued playing the drum for another 5-10 minutes, but at that point I was growing tired. My wife came out and drummed for a while and, as it became dark, the vultures failed to return. We both felt relieved and buoyed by our success.
The next evening we were out there again. Again the three lead vultures appeared and descended to their perch in the pines. But this time, the force and persistence of both of us drumming was enough to drive the lead birds away. The rest of the kettle stayed away as well.
I had a neighborhood civic club meeting to attend at 7:30 and a neighbor drove into our driveway to pick me up. As I approached his car, I heard drumbeats coming from the backyard and realized that the vultures were returning. I invited my neighbor to join me in the yard where my wife was drumming fiercely. She approached our neighbor and handed him the other drum. To my surprise, my mild-mannered neighbor started drumming with a frenzy of his own. After some time, the vultures left again and we went on to our meeting, laughing heartily at our unexpected adventure.
On the third evening my wife and I were going out to friends’ for supper. I was worried that the vultures would return, but I had an idea for keeping them at bay while we were away. I retrieved my old 1980’s “boom box” radio/tape player from our basement and set it up on the patio using a long extension cord. I pointed the two speakers straight up, put on our favorite FM jazz station, and turned the volume all the way up. It was loud! I worried about our neighbors, but it was a chilly evening and windows were closed. Our friends lived within a few miles and I reasoned that we would return early enough to avoid problems.
While telling our hosts about the situation that evening, they suggested that we use an electronic timer to control when the boom box went on and off. We implemented that the following evening, setting it to go on at 6:30p and off at 8. Using the radio/timer for the next few nights, we saw no sign of vultures and thought our problem was solved.
The man from the Wildlife Information Hotline called me back and said that I might have to be even more persistent. He said that vultures loved clumps of tall pine trees. The fact that they had been roosting there for at least four weeks before we acted indicated that they well might return. And sure enough they did. One week later, observing the beautiful dusk out our back window, I saw the lead birds descending once more to make wide circles around our house. I immediately went out with a drum and within a few minutes, they left without ever landing. That was two weeks ago and we’ve had no sighting of them since.
Thinking back over this experience, it occurs to me that my encounter with the vultures can be described in four stages: denial, awareness, acceptance, action. My initial fascination and interest in the vultures were real and important to me, yet it prevented me from realizing the effects of hosting these creatures indefinitely. Gradually, my daily observations led to an awareness that these wild creatures’ nesting at such close proximity had undeniable negative ramifications for my wife and me. It was difficult to accept the negative aspects because I am an ecologist and believe that all God’s creatures have inherent worth, dignity and purpose. By denying my negative feelings, however, I was becoming a victim of them. Accepting the unacceptability of having the vultures as close neighbors indefinitely allowed me to act. As I stood out in my yard with my drum that first evening, I felt energized and aligned with my deepest instincts. As the vultures swooped down, I felt their energy and grace and responded with my own energy, and determination. I’d grown to deeply admire and respect these creatures, and yet felt no guilt about shooing them away to a roost that didn’t impinge directly on my space. I could still affirm the Lakota Indian prayer that I’d learned in the sweat lodge — “We are all related” – AND that I had a real need to sometimes enforce a respectful distance.
John Bayerl, 4/17/2019